I’ve never been a big fan of American comic books. I find it extremely difficult to take superhero comics seriously, particularly when the writers try to inject pathos into their stories of hyper-muscled spandex fanatics by having them spout outrageously corny dialog (Superman writers are the absolute worst for this, unsurprisingly). Even people who write less mainstream fare seem to find it difficult to break out of the Marvel/DC mould – by now it is no longer a big enough twist to have your superheroes not dress like idiots.
But I like manga, hereon out referred to as ‘Japanese comics’ just to annoy the purists. Part of the attraction is that there’s a much greater diversity of genre than what you tend to get in American comics; look hard enough and you can find almost any kind of story you could want, from typical shonen action-fests to sports comics to a seemingly endless number of romance subgenres.
Sometimes people even make manga about making manga, which brings me to the main topic of this post.
Art supplies are my energy!!
Bakuman starts off with a chance encounter between two teenagers. One can write, one can draw, and together they make a formidable duo. The story follows their (not always successful) attempts at getting their own comic serialised in Shonen Jump, the most mainstream of the mainstream weekly magazines – and also the one that generates more mega-hit series than anybody else. (It’s also where Bakuman was published in Japan.)
If you’re an aspiring author, and I’m guessing lots of people reading this are, ask yourself this: when did you decide that you wanted to be published? Note the word ‘published’, there. I’m asking when you first decided that you wanted to throw your lot in with the publishing industry as a career, or at least as a way of getting a readership. For me, it happened when I was about fifteen, and I haven’t looked back since. Getting published has been my primary goal in life from that point onward. Except it’s more than that; just getting published isn’t enough (at least in the long-term). I want to make a living from writing. Hell, I’d like to get rich from writing, someday.
Actually, you know what? I want to be a famous author. There, I said it.
I think that’s why Bakuman resonates with me so strongly. The characters have an enormous amount of creative talent, obviously, and they’re passionate about what they do, but their goals are unwaveringly commercial. They decide what to draw based on what they think will sell, not based on what their creative soul (or whatever) urges them to draw. Almost from the beginning, they start working with an editor at Shonen Jump’s publishing company who sees their potential and tries to guide them down the correct path. This is very much a story of two people trying to make it in a particular publishing industry, rather than the story of two creative geniuses growing through their art. The American YA equivalent to what they do would be somebody writing a book that is precisely calculated to be the Next Big Thing in paranormal romance. (And this is the point where all of the writers in the audience pretend that they’ve never considered doing that, the very idea, artistic integrity etc. etc.)
I really wonder why more people aren’t writing stories like this for teenagers. Most authors take up writing in their early teens, and it’s not uncommon for people to start entertaining thoughts of publication while they’re still in high school. Hell, it’s not unheard of for somebody to actually be published while in high school – it’s not as if there’s an age requirement for becoming a published author. Where are the stories of a teenage prodigy navigating their way through the publishing industry, making the artistic concessions required to get a book on the shelves – or, alternatively, doing battle with their editor and refusing to make those concessions? Why aren’t there more writer-protagonists in YA, struggling to finish a draft in between high school drama and throwing themselves into the often-insane world of online writing communities? Imagine how strange it would seem to a ‘normal’ audience to know just how obsessive aspiring authors can be about keeping up with trends and editor requests and the minute details of agency response times. (Yes, people actually do this. Yes, it’s as crazy as it sounds.)
This is totally what writing feels like. Totally.
Bakuman isn’t shy about the downsides of trying to make it big, either, even if it does present the Japanese comic industry in an undeniably exaggerated and positive light. Rivalry and bitter resentment are constant companions for those who are overshadowed by their more talented (or lucky) peers, and every character we follow is acutely aware of the fact that only a handful of people can ever rise to the top. But if you make it…well, there’s no room for ‘if’. You have to make it, right? It’s in your blood, after all, it’s what you do, and no amount of rejection or failure is going to change that.
Before I recommend Bakuman too much, I should point out that it has its flaws. The plot is held together by a truly ridiculous relationship between the main character and his personality-deprived girlfriend, and their total lack of chemistry would put even the most banal YA Paranormal Romance to shame. There’s also an unsavory vein of misogyny running through the whole thing. Early on, one of the main characters starts talking at length about how ‘smart girls should hide their intelligence so that guys will think they’re cute’ (yes, really). The main character’s mother lets him devote his time to making comics after his father tells her that ‘men have dreams women can never understand’ (uuuurgh). The only female character in the entire story with any real independence eventually turns into a glorified domestic servant for a pair of teenage boys – but she’s happy to do it, because it means she gets to help them fulfill their goals! So yeah, that part is pretty bad, although it’s not too surprising when you consider that this was written by the same person who did Death Note. (That’s the ‘Yes, you used to be an FBI agent, but now you’re just my fiancé so shut up’ series, for those who might have forgotten.)
If you can look past all that, Bakuman is a compelling and surprisingly down-to-earth glimpse into what it takes to break into a creative field. If you’ve ever thought of writing a YA novel about somebody trying to get published, give this a read. I think it shows pretty clearly that you can make that kind of story informative for non-writers and entertaining at the same time.